Football – A question of progression and what to expect next year

Putting aside the debate of whether or not Walters was the right hire, I’m curious what people’s thoughts are on individual player and team progression throughout the year. Record is one way to measure the success of the program. However, another way to measure progress is through player development and how the team adapted throughout the season. I’m curious what people think? To me, this is one key indicator of how you can expect the program to mature in coming years. Can the coaches on staff help make the most of individual talent despite the potential lack of overall talent on the team and disparity against competition? I like to look at it from 3 different angles; player development, situational football, and team cohesion. These are all things that the coaches can help affect throughout the course of the season, particularly as the year progresses.

Here is how I would rate it the Boiler's performance in 2023

Individual Player Development: C (Defense B / Offense D-)

This is mixed in my opinion. Certain players seemed to get marginally better throughout the year whereas certain players seemed to regress. Thienemen was obviously an absolute sensation as a freshman. Take a guy who was a 3 star recruit coming out of high school and he comes in and plays at a record setting level and it’s clear that the coaches are doing something right in that situation. Sanoussi Kane was another example of progress in my opinion as well year over year. He seemed to constantly have his nose on the football and made some huge individual plays throughout the season. But then you look at guys like Cam Allen who seemed to just continually be out of position and unprepared as did most of the secondary throughout the year. To me, that was more schematic than anything and while I don't agree with just leaving guys out to dry to "play your scheme", I do think it helped other guys individually succeed and team defense succeed as a unit. On the offensive side of the ball, it was an entirely different story. Hudson Card seemed to vacillate wildly week to week. Granted some of his ills are likely due to not having any viable D1 receivers to throw to but he seemed to make a lot of the same mistakes throughout the year (holding the ball too long, staring down receivers, etc). Burk was another who should have made major gains but seemed to stay stagnant for much of the year. Mockabee was the biggest disappointment. Again, he was running behind a line that had significant injuries but he seemed to regress dramatically as a player and there didn’t seem to be any corrections at all. A huge part of coaching is developing the talent you have and it’s hard to say that this coaching staff, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, made any individual players significantly better throughout the year.

Situational Football: F

The fact that there were multiple instances in the Indiana game where we couldn’t gain short yardage to get a first down was just embarrassing. There is no easy stat to gather about this but I went back and looked at play by play for the year and in situations on 2nd and 3rd down where 2 or less yards were needed, we were 38-92 in those situations. Meaning, in situations where we needed either 2 yards to extend a drive or score, we only converted on 41% of those. By comparison, the national average of 3rd down conversions of ANY distance was 39%. To me, this is one of the single biggest red herrings from the season. There were so many games where extending a drive or getting in the end zone would have shifted the outcome of the game and we just couldn’t do it. This is something that is to some degree excusable early in the season as you are figuring out what your team dynamics are. But to struggle with this mightily in the Indiana and Northwestern games was just inexcusable in my mind. You can argue about player execution but I think we all witnessed the mind-numbing attempts to run straight up the middle over and over again with no success. Combine this with the total lack of aggression on third and medium or long (how many QB keepers or draw plays on 3 and 10 or longer) and it was just one mistake after another. Purdue was 89th in the country on 3rd down conversion percentage out of 133 teams. Compounding this was the number of times we took multiple shots at trying to get 1 yard. It wasn't just that we failed to convert on 3rd and 1. It's that we went 2nd, 3rd and 4th and 1 and consecutively failed, many times running the same or similar plays. There were also a number of boneheaded time management decisions throughout the year that didn’t seem to get better as the season progressed.

Team Cohesion: B+

This is one area that I think the coaching staff overall did pretty well. For all the struggles on the year, you never saw visible quit in the team. I remember watching during the Hazell years where it was clear the team simply gave up on the game at times. That never happened this year. Even in games where it was clearly out of reach, I felt like the players were doing everything they could to try to keep fighting and clawing. You also didn’t see visible meltdowns or finger pointing or other indications that there was blame being thrown around. So, kudos to the coaches for keeping the kids heads in the game, keeping them engaged and trying to do the best they could even in bad situations.

So, what does this all net out to? I think the offense needs a complete overhaul and I think Graham Harrell needs to go. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. In his time at USC from 2019-2021, the USC offense actually regressed in all measurable ways (points scored, total offense, total yards, etc). Granted that was partly in the thick of COVID so could be explained away. The WVU offense did improve in 2022 from 2021 but it was feast or famine if you look a little deeper. So, I’m not convinced that Graham has what it takes to coach at this level and the total lack of development of players on that side of the ball speaks volume. Giving a bad coach better players might improve that to some extent but structurally, I don’t think Harrell knows how to maximize the talent he has. If you juxtapose the development over the year between offense and defense (see below), I think it’s a perfect contrast of making the best of a bad situation (defense) and taking a bad situation and making it worse (offense). To me, you get rid of the OC and seek a replacement.

I think the defense actually performed admirably if you look at the conditions they were given. They actually improved over the 2022 defense in almost every measurable way. Looking at (2022 / 2023), points allowed was (383 / 365), passing yards allowed was (3149 / 2898), passing TDs (28 / 21), running yards was (1990 / 1687), total yards (5139 / 4585) and red zone defense (31 TDs on 46 tries / 28 TDs on 45). Time of possession was nearly identical as compared to last year, turnovers were slightly down and 3rd down conversion was up over 2022 by about 5%. We actually improved slightly on 4th down stops but with a smaller sample size. To me, this is encouraging because Walters was brought in to be a defensive wunderkind and I think the defense performed above average relative to the talent on the field. The only area of criticism I have here is our ability to defend against play action. Perhaps this was just an issue with talent level but the fact that we let multiple QBs throughout the year fake us out with RPO style action was disappointing. However, on the whole, the defensive unit seemed to improve substantially as the year went on. My verdict is the defense has earned the right to prove that they can take better talent and improve on field performance.

Overall – I actually think next season will be very telling. Granted, we will once again be playing against stiffer competition, I think we have an opportunity to see substantial improvement on the defensive side of the ball. If we could limit production by opposing teams and provide additional opportunities for our offense, it’s going to be absolutely imperative that we take advantage of those opportunities to have any chance of measured success next year. If Harrell’s track record continues and the offense regresses further, it’s going to continue to put pressure on our defense and likely dictate the outcome of our season. I realize this sounds fairly obvious as in to win you need to score more points. I’m simply saying that I anticipate our seasons success next year will depend much more on how the offense evolves than the defense.

What say all of you?

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